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25 June, 2024
 
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Hamas to broadcast executions of Israeli hostages online

Execution broadcasts create digital quandary

Source: The Washington Post

Hamas militants have vowed to broadcast their executions of Israeli hostages on the internet. Recent history shows there's virtually nothing tech companies can do to prevent that from happening.

Live-streamed murders in Buffalo and Christchurch, New Zealand, remain visible on the web and have been viewed millions of times, long after the mass killings took place. Companies' efforts to stop access to violent videos have been stymied by an open internet that makes it easy to watch, save and share videos at viral speed - and by the changing strategies of killers and propagandists, who can use a network of distributed online services to ensure the videos remain forever within reach.

A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said in an audio message posted to the group's Telegram account this week that its fighters would kill hostages, one by one, every time an Israeli strike hits a home in Gaza, the dense coastal strip of more than 2 million Palestinians under Hamas control.

The executions, the spokesman said, would be broadcast in "audio and video," though he did not specify where or when they would be shown. Hamas is believed to have abducted more than 100 people, mostly civilians, during its brutal assault on southern Israel. Some have already been killed, according to video reviewed by The Washington Post.

The threat harks back to videos nearly a decade ago from the Islamic State, which spread fear and won attention by posting videos showing the beheadings of journalists, aid workers and other civilian captives. But those videos were prerecorded and edited. Hamas' pledge to record and air executions that have yet to take place is new and seems calibrated to incite fear over the barbarism to come.

"Hamas' entire strategy is to inflict as much damage as possible and drive as much attention to that damage as possible, in order to incite fear for the broader public," said Graham Brookie, a senior director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. "This is one of the first times we've seen this glossy propaganda content recorded in real time."

Hamas already has used Telegram, a largely unmoderated messaging platform with more than 800 million international users, to share grisly videos of kidnappings and murders during the weekend attack.

Many of the videos feature relatively sophisticated touches, such as opening title animations and action-movie-style soundtracks, suggesting the group has a predesigned workflow for recording, editing and publication. Some of the videos appeared in edited form online within hours after the ambush began.

"Hamas has been very well prepared for this and has created professional systems to get their message out," said Josh Lipowsky, a senior research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project, an advocacy group in Washington that tracks online extremism.

Some researchers said they expect Hamas would publish any execution videos to Telegram, from which they are likely to be reposted to mainstream sites such as X, formerly known as Twitter, where they might gain millions of views.

But the group could also live-stream the executions to a social media platform or other website using a throwaway account, as mass murderers have done in recent years. Those videos could then be saved and republished across a number of other video services, practically guaranteeing that the clips would never disappear from the web.

"You cannot rule out a Christchurch-style broadcast," Brookie said, referring to the 2019 killings of 49 people inside two New Zealand mosques that were live-streamed on Facebook. "There are very few ways to stop that. It may reach only a few people in the moment, but it has the potential to go viral."

Telegram, which did not respond to requests for comment, has largely tolerated violent content on its platform on the basis of promoting unrestrained free expression. Other lesser-known sites specialize in the sharing of extreme videos and do not respond to requests for removal.

Hamas' Telegram channels, which have more than 120,000 subscribers and post in Arabic and English, offer a mix of official statements, training videos, propaganda images and grisly videos, some of which show militants stepping on Israeli corpses.

Facebook and other mainstream social networks pay for internal content-moderation systems and staffs to look for and block violent content. After the New Zealand shootings, 14 internet services and 55 international governments backed a policy argument, known as the Christchurch Call, designed to combat the sharing of extremist content. (Telegram is not among them.)

But the pact does not proactively monitor each live stream or shared video, and violent individuals have found ways to circumvent the rules. Last year, when a racist gunman live-streamed himself killing 10 people in a Buffalo grocery store, the video was streamed to Twitch, where it was removed within two minutes of the first gunshots - enough time for at least one viewer to repost it on other sites, including Facebook, where it was viewed millions of times.

The brutality showcased in Hamas' videos has proved especially graphic, even compared to videos from other conflict zones around the world, due partly to the group's preplanning and technological capabilities, Brookie said. In some of the videos, militants can be seen wearing GoPro cameras, so as to record the video from a more visceral, first-person perspective.

Such footage has become a more common facet of modern combat. Ukraine has used first-person video from soldiers' helmets and attack drones to document their war against Russian invaders. And the use of GoPro cameras on the battlefield was first popularized by Syria's volunteer Civil Defense force, known as the White Helmets, which have used them to record their rescues of civilians since Russia dispatched troops there in 2015.

Hamas' warning of execution broadcasts suggests the group is pushing for a more accelerated style of terror propaganda, Lipowsky said.

"The value is to demoralize," he said. "It is a form of emotional warfare. It is Hamas looking to break the spirits of Israelis and the global Jewish community."

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Cyprus  |  Hamas  |  broadcast  |  hostage

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